200 years ago Chief Justice John Marshall lead a six week river survey through western Virginia to determine the feasibility of realizing Washington’s vision of establishing a river based trade route between the eastern seaboard and the Ohio River Valley. Marshall’s journey took him upstream on the James River from Lynchburg, VA for over 80 miles into the heart of the rugged Appalachian frontier. He then crossed the Allegheny mountains and descended the Greenbrier River and the wild whitewater of the New River in present day West Virginia to the placid waters of the Kanawah. During this trip Marshall traveled in a vessel known as the James River batteau- the primary means of commercial transit on Piedmont and Appalachian rivers in the southeast. Generally between 40′ to 60′ long and 6′ to 8′ wide the flat bottomed boats hauled crops downstream and finished goods back up stream. Marshall’s trip was the impetus for beginning construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal. Althought the canal was outpaced by railroad and never made it the entire way to the Kanawah. Nonetheless, the pass through the mountains that then 57 year old Marshall surveyed remains a vital coridor of trade through Appalachia to this day.
In commemoration of Marshall’s journey, and as a tribute to the vision of the bold men whose determination to forge a lasting and successful political entity from a group of rebellious colonies, my crew and I are retracing the entire intended James River and Kanawah Canal line over the next month and a half. Thanks to a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, we have spent the previous two months building a replica James River Batteau very similar to the one Marshall would have traveled in during the 1812 survey, andwe have launched our journey on April, 5 just outside Richmond Virginia. After fighting the current for 220 miles to Covington, Virginia we will cross the Allegheny’s, and just as Marshall did 200 years ago descend the Greenbrier and New Rivers. Our journey will climax with a descent of the New River Gorge and the New River Dries; two treacherous sections that live in whitewater lore.
In five days we poled our vessel 70 miles upstream and have about 150 ahead of us. The trip has been amazing thus far; we have battled swift currents, countless shoals, and an unrelenting headwind. We have also have enjoyed the beauty of the James River, the satisfaction of a hard days work, the thrill of ascending rapids, the majesty of sycamore lined river banks, and the hospitality of folks on the river. The crew is in high spirits and we eagerly await the challenges of the coming weeks. We will be updating the Explorers Journal every few days, but you can find much more detailed descriptions of our trip, as well as the construction of our boat on our own blog at www.vacanals.org/marshall. We hope you follow along as we highlight the critical role of riparian tranist in our nations history.